by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Aaron Smith and his boyfriend Benjamin White, both 23, arrived in Seattle on June 24 to experience their first Seattle Pride weekend. The two had just attended the Pride festivities in their home of Portland, Oregon, and decided to see what all the Seattle buzz was all about.
'I was excited,' Aaron told Seattle Gay News. 'I heard that the Seattle Pride Parade is amazing and that the Pride festival, held at Seattle Center, was free.'
Aaron was on his way to Alaska, where he will be working in a fishery for the summer, when he and Benjamin decided to spend a weekend in Seattle.
Like many Gay men in their 20s visiting Seattle for the weekend, the couple hit the Hill on Friday and Saturday. 'We had a great time seeing the drag queens, getting cute underwear for cheap, and meeting up with friends of ours who live in Seattle,' said Aaron.
The two men found Seattle to be a very welcoming city. 'On Saturday, while getting ready to go out to the Cuff, I wore high heels and feathered eyelashes I made myself with a full face of makeup,' Aaron told SGN. 'We walked all the way from Harrison and Bellevue and everyone was friendly along the way, complimented me on my style, and made us feel very glad to be in Seattle.'
The next day, Pride Sunday, the visiting couple and their friends walked downtown and found a spot along the parade route and watched a good hour or so of the parade. They then decided to sit down at a table in the plaza area of Westlake Center, with the Pride Parade marching gaily by.
For Aaron, experiencing Seattle Pride with his boyfriend had, up until that point, been a magical experience. 'Gay Pride, to me, is more than simply being proud of a homosexual persuasion,' he said. 'The pride comes in acknowledging the achievements of a group that, in the very short time that they have been active in liberating themselves from discrimination in societies around the world, have changed the game for not only themselves but anyone else who needs inspiration to rise up to the challenges facing them.'
When Aaron and Benjamin sat down, the parade was in full swing.
'We were sitting down for only a couple of minutes before a security guard came over,' Aaron recalled. 'He asked us to sit 'properly, side by side.' I wasn't sure why he was asking us to do this. When I asked, 'Why?' he told us that it was the rule.'
The security officer explained to Aaron that Westlake Center has a code of conduct for family-friendly behavior. When Aaron asked the security guard more about the rule, he says the man just told him, 'I don't make the rules, I just enforce them.' The security guard then walked away.
I asked Aaron about how the couple had been sitting. He maintains that they were only sitting on each other and that nothing lewd or offensive had occurred. 'The only thing that could be noted about the situation was that we were sitting on each other, with Benjamin sitting down on the bench in a normal fashion and I was sitting on his lap facing him, where my knees would be bent at his sides with my shins resting on the edge of the bench and my head resting on his shoulder,' he said.
'I was, quite simply, shell-shocked,' continued Aaron. 'I heard what [the security guard] had said and it rolled around in my mind a couple of times before I could let 'Why?' fall from my lips.'
Upon receiving the explanation about the family-friendly code of conduct (which obviously doesn't take same-sex relationships into account), Aaron says he began to get worked up. 'You know that feeling you get when you feel like a physical altercation is about to happen?' he said. 'The slight shake of your chest when you breathe in and the sharpness that comes to your thoughts? I felt that. My body was gearing me up to defend itself as though I had been physically struck.'
Realizing that an injustice was happening, he walked around the corner of the plaza to a group of four Seattle Police Department officers to speak with them.
'I said, 'So, me and my boyfriend were over there sitting on each other's laps and a security guard from the mall came up and asked us not to sit on each other because it was outside of the mall's code of conduct for family-friendly behavior. Can they uphold that?' He nonchalantly told me that since it was private property, they could say what they wanted.'
Basically, if Aaron had a problem with the rule, he should just leave the property.
Realizing he wasn't getting anywhere because the SPD officers simply did not care, he returned to his boyfriend at Westlake Center. He then noticed saw male/female couples sitting on each other in any direction he turned. 'Some were even being intimate and kissing,' said Aaron. 'There was no one telling them they could not do so.'
He brought the situation to the attention of another security guard. 'I approached him because he was standing very close to a female with a male on her lap,' he said. 'To the casual observer, this couple appeared to be sharing a more intimate pose than Benjamin and I had. I asked the security guard if he was going to ask them to not sit on each other since this was outside of Westlake's code of conduct for family-friendly behavior.'
According to Aaron, the security guard immediately snapped at him saying, 'No, that is different. I saw what was happening over there with you guys, you had your legs wrapped around each other and were not just sitting.'
Westlake Center officials now agree that the two men had not caused a scene and that the security guard was out of line for his summation of the situation.
'He seemed ready for a confrontation, but I, of course, was not going to start an issue with a security officer at an event that is intended to be happy for everyone,' said Aaron.
While the young man understands that Westlake Center is private property, he said, 'Having a policy that asks for people on your property to behave in a family-friendly manner seems very broad to me. This leaves the decision as to what is family-friendly up to the security officer that will be enforcing this policy.'
'I am sure that not all of the security guards at the Westlake Mall are asking anyone and everyone they see who happen to be sitting on one another to dismount and sit beside each other,' he continued. 'What about a daughter sitting on her father's lap? The only people that I am aware of who were asked not to sit on each other were my boyfriend and I. Not only that, but we were also told that a male/female grouping that I directly pointed out to a security guard was 'different.'
'The injustice here is that the rights that protect my boyfriend and I from being treated differently as homosexuals were thrown out the window when we were asked not even to sit on each other in a public space,' said Aaron. 'This is compounded by the fact that it was Pride weekend, with the Pride parade going by not 50 feet from us, and the Seattle Police not identifying the action as being outside of the law.'
Westlake Center officials agree with Aaron. When contacted by Seattle Gay News, the management of the property, which employs LGBT workers and its plaza has been the site for pro-LGBT equality rallies over the years, distanced themselves from the contracted security firm and condemned and apologized for the incident.
David Keating, a spokesperson for Westlake Center, told SGN that the security officers are not employees of the company. They are, in fact, employees of Valor Security Corporation, an Atlanta, Georgia-based security firm contracted by the managers of the Westlake Center property.
'The response that was taken by the security guard was not a response that we would condone,' Keating told SGN. 'In response to this incident, we are working with the contracted security company to ensure that these types of interactions do not occur in the future.'
'As a company,' he continued, 'we expect Valor Security Corporation to apologize for what occurred.'
Valor Security Corporation's senior vice president released the following statement to Seattle Gay News: 'Our officers are trained to be respectful of all patrons when executing their responsibilities. Unfortunately in this case, the officer's use of discretion was not consistent with our policies for personal interactions. We apologize for the officer's response. In addition, we are taking steps immediately to ensure that every member of our team clearly understands and enforces our policies while remaining sensitive to all who choose to visit, shop and work at Westlake Center.'
Still, the fact remains that the image of progressive Seattle was shattered in the eyes of two Gay tourists during Pride weekend. 'There is no way for me to know how many pink dollars went into the pockets of Westlake that Sunday, but I can safely say that if it was up to me, I would refund every one,' said Aaron. 'A business that allows for such discrimination to occur on a property against the very group that is being celebrated that day is outrageous!'
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